Island Life meets Chris Sandell who stunned TV with hot air balloon stunts.
As the saying goes, there’s a fine line between bravery and madness. Chris Sandell once decided on a career move that fell virtually right on that fine line.
As financial uncertainty grew and the recession of the early 1990s began to take its toll, the future of Chris’s seemingly stable chartered surveyors business was suddenly very much up in the air. So he decided to follow suit!
From the relative calm of his 9 to 5 job he opted for an amazing change of direction – and went upwardly mobile as a hot air balloon pilot.
During his dozen or so years travelling in a basket hanging under a number of massive flying machines, Chris and his regular flying partner Mike Howard took on much more than just giving paying passengers a panoramic view of the picturesque south of England and the Isle of Wight.
They embarked on a series of high altitude stunts that really did border on madness, even though they earned them a number of TV appearances and a couple of places in the Guinness Book of Records.
Chris has subsequently left the ‘high life’, and he and wife Lyn have their feet firmly back on the ground running their property development business from their home near Ryde. But he found time to give Island Life an insight into a truly amazing chapter of his life that was far more than just a load of hot air. The stunts that came towards the end of his balloon flying career were truly incredible. He and Mike were contacted by the BBC to do something ‘quite spectacular’ for the start and finish of the TV series ‘Record Breakers.’
So with show host Cheryl Baker on board, they flew their balloon to an altitude of 20,300ft before Mike performed a trapeze act, swinging from a rope attached to the top of the balloon – the highest ever trapeze act by more than 4,000ft, and in a temperature of minus 18 degrees!
But it could so easily have cost Mike his life. Chris explained: “He learned his trapeze act on a piece of wood swinging from a tree in his garden. After a bit of practice and a couple of falls he said he was ready. On the day we did it he should have worn a safety line, but disconnected it before he got out of the balloon. And because of the altitude he also had a canular connected to his nose to supply oxygen.
“But while on the trapeze he was so exuberant he started breathing through his mouth rather than his nose, and fell into an almost semi-conscious state. We asked him if he was OK, and he replied ‘It’s high, I am cold and very tired’. Thankfully we just managed to pull him back into the basket before he collapsed. But he was all right after an emergency decent and he breathed in pure oxygen.”
If that was not enough the pair then combined with the Army’s Red Devils parachute display team for another daredevil act. Four Red Devils jumped out of the balloon basket, and deployed their chutes. The parachutists were caught up by the balloon which was allowed to semi deflate, before being re-inflated to match their descent speed, and the parachute team clambered back into the basket after flying into a safety net slung under it. Two parachutists got back into the basket – creating the record as the previous time it was tried only one made it back in!
“That was very risky, and I would never think of being involved in anything like that again,” admitted Chris.
Then came the TV ‘You Bet’ programme challenge. Chris first tested it out to make sure it was possible, before Mike – at a height of 3,000ft – climbed from the basket to the top of the balloon on a rope ladder, stood on the top of the balloon and then abseiled down the other side – and all in the space of three allocated minutes. He made it with one second to spare!
When Chris arrived on the Island as a youngster, moving from Southampton, and attended school at Shanklin Primary, Ventnor Middle and Sandown High Schools he could never have envisaged the two diverse careers that lay ahead.
After summer holidays spent working on Shanklin beach, he took a degree in surveying at Portsmouth University, and moved to London with his career path seemingly mapped out. Within a few years he and wife Lyn moved to Sevenoaks in Kent and set up a firm of Chartered Surveyors, but as the recession began to bite they sold their home and rented an oast house in Paddockwood, looking for a new challenge.
He recalls: “The first morning at the Oast House I woke to the sound of a Tiger Moth plane taxiing past the window. It was the landlord, Dave Wood, who had bought the farm and 60 acres of land and laid it out beautifully as grass runways for his three Tiger Moths. I had never had any interest in aviation up to that point, but he told me how he had found and restored them and regularly flew them from his land.
“He asked me if I wanted to go up with him. I said yes without hesitation. The only time I had flown before that was in a Jumbo Jet, so it was quite an experience, absolutely amazing.”
When Chris suggested he would love to fly one himself, Dave threw down the challenge: “You get your licence and I will teach you.” He did exactly that, acquiring the licence and then learning to fly in a little over a year.
Then purely by chance a huge hot air balloon landed on the runway outside his house one day – and that sparked the start of Chris’s other life in the sky, which ultimately led to taking part in those remarkable daredevil stunts. But at the time such adrenalin-filled capers were still on the distant horizon, and as he soon discovered it certainly wasn’t all plain sailing through the clouds.
Initially the Aussies who landed his balloon on the runway outside the family home reached an agreement with landlord Dave to use the site to fly his eight-passenger craft, one of the biggest available at the time. They also had a small sports balloon, and eventually Chris became involved in helping to maintain it and then learnt to fly it.
In 1992 he decided he wanted to take ballooning more seriously, some three years after the Civil Aviation Authority recognised that a commercial passenger operation could be run using hot air balloons, rather than taking people up as a ‘cost share’ in small sports balloons.
His first balloon was used as a giant ‘advertising billboard’ for his surveying company, and he successfully used it to entertain business clients. He said: “The first year I flew 160 people for nothing. It cost me a fortune, and as I still hadn’t got a pilot’s licence I had to pay for a pilot as well. So it was fantastic but awful all at the same time.”
As the recession hit harder in 1993, Chris lost 40 per cent of his surveying business in three months, so decided to link up with the Aussies to start their own business. Alas at the end of the season the Aussies went back Down Under, never to be seen again.
Undeterred, he sold his surveying business and started ‘Out of this World’ hot air balloon flights. But then came the question of where to find passengers? Chris’s wife came up with the idea of marketing flights as a Christmas present, and reached an agreement with the recently opened Lakeside Shopping Centre to stand the balloon basket in the complex to sell flights.
From November 23 for a month he set about selling to the shopping centre customers, but despite handing out countless brochures for a free-to-enter competition there was very little interest for nearly two weeks – in fact not even one flight sold.
“I had been standing in the centre for 120 hours talking to people about hot air balloons, and had taken absolutely nothing,” smiled Chris. “I was getting very despondent, but then suddenly out of the blue someone came up and asked for two flights. Then two more, followed by more and more. By the end of the day I had taken £1,250 in cash; and in the three weeks up to December 23 we took 502 bookings and banked over £60,000!”
Bookings continued to flock in after Christmas, so by the time the flying season began on March 31st, Chris had 800 passengers eagerly awaiting a flight, and he was at the helm of the fifth largest balloon company in the country – without a transport licence or a balloon! But with so much custom, pilots were easy to come by, knowing they had guaranteed work.
And backed by a High Street bank, Chris approached Cameron Balloons, and for the first time the company built him a 12-man balloon, the biggest ever commissioned at that time. However, there was near disaster on the first flight when the balloon’s quick deflation system failed, the massive craft was dragged across a field, got caught up in a tree and suffered £5,000 worth of damage.
Within days Chris was back in the air, and subsequently ran the operation for 10 years in the Kent area, flying 14,000 passengers without incident, apart from someone who cut his finger catching hold of a tree branch.
He and Mike – who was training to be an airline pilot, and was the son of the production director of Cameron Balloons – then fancied another challenge when the five balloons they had acquired, along with all the other equipment, stood idle in the winter months. So for three winter seasons they linked up with a five-star hotel in Kitzbuhel, Austria and ferried their customers up and down the ski slopes. Passengers included Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, and they still have the pictures to prove it.
Chris says: “Eventually two experiences shaped the way the company went. First the then Chancellor Gordon Brown announced VAT would be extended to non-essential passenger transport, including hot air balloon flights, which took £40,000 off the bottom line and prevented us from being able to invest the way we had before in the best equipment going. It also meant customers had to pay an extra £22, which was hard to pass on.
“Secondly after 1,000 flights, two world records and flying balloons all over Europe, I awoke one day and thought it was time for a change.”
The same year Chris sold out to a competitor and returned to a more normal lifestyle. That was eight years ago. Now his daughter is 16, keen to fly, and the new balloon is on order!